Hi, welcome to another episode of "As the Writers Juggle," in which we ask writers to share their tips on the writing life. Today's guest is Anne Broyles, the author of PRISCILLA AND THE HOLLYHOCKS (Charlesbridge, 2008) and SHY MAMA’S HALLOWEEN (Tilbury House, 2000) and author, co-author or contributor of twenty books for youth and adults in the religious field. Anne also writes high school curriculum for youth groups and Sunday schools and is a regular contributor to MERRIMACK VALLEY MAGAZINE. Two traumatic incidents in Anne's life inspired her to make a leap of faith into a career as a full-time writer, combining fiction and non-fiction writing to feed both body and soul.
Q: Anne, you came to writing full-time after a career in the ministry. Can you tell us a little about that transition?
Anne: After college, I attended seminary with a desire to write books and produce films for my denomination, but that wasn’t a viable career option. So I threw myself into local church ministry and loved it. From the first year of my professional life as a United Methodist minister, I wrote magazine articles and high school curricula in addition to my 60-hour a week ministry. I couldn’t NOT write.
In 1996, as I madly typed away on an impending deadline assignment, I received a call that a beautiful 21 year-old woman from our church had accidentally overdosed on alcohol and heroin. I left my computer, drove to the hospital, and spent the next twelve days going back and forth to Bridgette’s hospital bed until we decided to take her off of life support. Those were stressful days as I tried to do my other church work, interact with my family and complete the writing assignment. I felt an anguished push and pull between responsibilities, and didn’t get much sleep.
In 1997, an emergency surgery saved my life and kept me in the hospital for eight days. Having almost died brought clarity. I realized that while someone else could do my job as a church pastor, no one else could write the stories in my head. Five months later I took early retirement from ministry and began to write full-time. I’ve never regretted the decision.
Q: So this was definitely both a spiritual and professional journey for you. How did your family react to your decision?
Anne: My husband and kids have always been supportive. (They know how grumpy I get if I don’t get to write regularly!) That first year I made myself available to every editor I knew, and earned almost as much money as I had in ministry. But I wasn’t writing what I wanted to write (fiction); I was writing to pay bills. At the end of that year I chose to use part of an inheritance to “pay myself to write” for one year. My mother always encouraged my writing and I figured she would’ve wanted to be my patron.
When my children were young, I sometimes went away on writing retreat for a few days or a week to immerse myself in a longer book project so that I could come home and better use the bits and pieces of time I found. It was easier to leave for a while than to get on track with little uninterrupted time (my husband is a wonderful father, obviously). Each family or situation is different, so writers can make adjustments according to what works for them.
Now, my kids are independent young adults, so it’s just my husband and pets at home. I am also a Big Sister to a thirteen-year-old girl. I still count on the support and encouragement of all my family members, especially for those moments I am discouraged and I think I should give up this writing career and “get a real (better paying) job.”
Q: What sacrifices did you have to make to take the plunge?
Anne: I often had and still have to choose writing nonfiction over fiction because that’s what pays the bills, but those assignments give me the luxury of working from home, being my own boss, scheduling my time, and squeezing in children’s fiction writing and visits. I work fifteen hours a week at Habitat for Humanity. The rest of my jobs are writing-related.
Q: About how many hours a day/week can you spend writing?
Anne: I work on writing 4- 10 hours a day, six days a week but that includes research, business, correspondence, preparing for school visits and other presentations, traveling to give presentations, promotion (see below) and encouraging other writers. Because of my magazine and curriculum assignments there are days I don’t get to write or revise fiction at all. I try to focus on and clear all of the other tasks off my “to do list” so I can take several days in a row to do nothing but work on a novel or picture book, but it’s hard to balance everything. I don’t work for a page count per day, but tend to write fast when I am focused.
Q: About much of that time is spent on book promotion?
Anne: I spend an average of at least an hour each day preparing promotional materials, networking, contacting schools and enrichment councils, updating my blog and GoodReads. In the months before and after a book comes out, I sometimes feel swamped by the marketing demands. For instance, with PRISCILLA AND THE HOLLYHOCKS, I sent emails and postcards about the book to everyone I knew around the United States and traveled to several states to publicize the book. Each time I do a bookstore event, I send info to the pertinent geographic database. I try to supplement the efforts of the publisher’s PR department. For instance, when I discovered the New York Botanical Gardens carried PRISCILLA, I did research and sent cards to all the botanical gardens in the U.S. to encourage them to carry the book in their garden shop.
Q: You're writing and marketing dozens of books plus nonfiction articles. How do you organize it all?
Anne: On my office closet door I have index cards with the names of my 30 children’s books that are either 1) out to editors, 2) my current focus, or 3) need more revision and work. I don’t expect to get all those books completed and sold before I die, but I will keep trying!
Q: So what does a Day in the Life of Anne Broyles look like?
Anne: A typical day starts with an hour of Pilates, yoga, or cardio at 8 a.m. Then breakfast, after which I check email and respond to ‘writing business.” I usually have a to-do list for the day. Next, I spend several hours of focused time on that day’s project, which depends on whether I must work to an editor’s deadline or can choose my fiction project. With 20 minutes off for lunch and a 30-minute exercise break somewhere in the afternoon, I work until dinner, after which I often work some more. I go to bed around 11 p.m.This describes a day without social and family commitments.
Q: Very busy! But I notice you take time out too keep in shape--a must when you sit at a desk most of the day! What are your best places and times for writing?
Anne: I spend most of my writing time in my office with a view of woods and fields and occasional wild creatures.
Q: What a great view! And her office is pretty nifty, too!
Anne: For longer, complicated projects, I like to sit on my bed with papers scattered around me: a queen-sized work space. And comfy! Because I travel a lot, I write in airports and on planes, but that’s not nearly as comfortable.
Q: How do you keep from losing your momentum?
Anne: I remind myself that no one else can tell the stories in my head.Q: What do you do when you get blocked? (Or do you get blocked?)
Anne: I don’t think of it as getting blocked as much as needing a change. I’m always working on multiple projects (magazine articles, curricula, a couple of picture books, a YA novel), so when I feel fatigued with a project or no sparks are flying, I switch and work on something else.
Q: Do you find it difficult to make the transition between your non-writing responsibilities and writing? How do you handle it?
Anne: I actually like working at home because when I need a mental break, I walk the dogs or put a load of laundry in or kayak when it’s warm. Short breaks (usually 15-30 minutes) refresh my head and I feel ready to work again. I try not to do housework or yard work or family business in my designated writing time. I do get frustrated when my not-writing-fiction jobs intrude on my “real writing” (as they often do). I sometimes wish for a patron to fund me to write fiction full-time. Or an office assistant to take care of all the writing business would be wonderful, but that’s probably never going to happen. I’ve learned to live knowing I may never feel like I have everything done in my writing career or around the house.
Q: I think you've covered most writers' first three wishes: 1) a sugar-daddy (or mommy); 2) a personal assistant; 3) a house elf.
What helps motivate you and keep you on track? Are you self-motivated or do you need outside naggers to help?
Anne: I am totally self-motivated by the desire to write and get more work published. I set my own deadlines even if no editor is waiting for my work. My agent has a monthly “reading week,” so I often try to have something new to her so I test out my ideas before I am too immersed in a project.
Q: How do you deal with distractions—either outside or inner procrastinatorial/avoidance issues?
Anne: I’m resolved this year to more clearly separate out “writing” from “writing business/tasks,” and to designate certain times for Internet use. Otherwise, Facebook and email could eat up an hour or two. I just read Cory Doctorow’s blog on this topic (http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2009/01/cory-doctorow-writing-in-age-of.html) and it inspired me to make necessary changes.
Q: Yes, Facebook and all that other social networking stuff can be a HUGE time sink!
Do you feel you have enough time for non-writing hobbies or activities you’d like to pursue?
Anne: Yes, I spend long hours writing, but that is balanced out with lots of physical exercise (yoga, Pilates, cardio, hiking, kayaking or snowshoeing, depending on the season), reading (numerous books a week, since I am a fast reader), going to movies and plays with my husband, mentoring my Little Sister, getting together with friends, studying Spanish, travel. I need to balance my mental and physical and emotional energies. I also am a high-energy person with no young children who need me at this stage in my life.Q: What advice would you give to others struggling with writing and time management issues?
Anne: Don’t squander your gifts. You’ve got this one life, however long, so choose how you want to live it within the confines of your reality. That said, be gentle with yourself. It may be that other things are more important at this stage than your writing, and that’s okay, too.
Q: Well-said, indeed! Are there any other issues or ideas you’d like to mention?
Anne: I think it’s crucial to participate in a critique group. I count on my two groups for challenge, support and resource-sharing. Writing doesn’t have to be a lonely profession; there’s a great writing community in children’s lit and SCBWI.
Thanks, Anne! Your story is an inspiration in so many ways.